Think back to the first time you felt sexy feelings. I’m pretty sure my first “tingly” thoughts involved watching David Bowie in Labyrinth, with his very impressive bulge. I also distinctly remember sneaking a peek at softcore porn on staticy channels like HBO or Cinemax late at night. (Think of the TV screen in Poltergeist, but instead of a swirly ghost hand suddenly appearing amidst the fuzz, my eyes were peeled for boobie shots).
These early experiences — often characterized by curiosity, titillation and testing boundaries — can serve as models for our future fantasies. Studies show as many as 98 percent of adults admit to having sexual fantasies, with some of the most common involving multipartner sex, BDSM and breaking taboos. Fantasies don’t have to be raunchy to be erotic: tickling, cuddling and oily massages abound on fantasy-focused reddit threads.
In his 1995 book, The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment, sex therapist and author Dr. Jack Morin distilled hundreds of his clients’ sexual experiences and fantasies into an erotic equation of sorts that has stood the test of time: attraction + obstacles = excitement.
Obstacles can take many forms, from the unattainability of a partner (the Goblin King, for example) to a real or perceived social “rule” (e.g. men may fantasize about being pegged, or cuckolding another man). Hell, bad television reception can heighten the thrill.
Morin elaborated on his equation, identifying four key cornerstones of eroticism:
- Longing and anticipation
- Violating prohibitions
- Searching for power
- Overcoming ambivalence
Longing and anticipation
The first theme is about wanting what we can’t have. In our fantasies, we can create all kinds of elaborate scenarios with the focus of our desires, many of which hinge on delayed gratification.
Though we often think of fantasies as carnal, longing is hugely connected to romantic love. From Romeo and Juliet to If Beale Street Could Talk, Twilight to Call Me By Your Name, romance novels and films depict erotic fantasies (even if they may or may not include sex), and almost universally hinge on a character’s desire for someone they can’t or shouldn’t be with. This angst often serves as foreplay for a dramatic climax that, coincidentally or not, can mirror the stages of a really good bang sesh. (Happy endings not guaranteed.)
The titillating potential of longing and anticipation is illustrated well by Frank, a participant in Morin’s sexual excitement survey. Because of his job, Frank was unable to be with his fiancée for the six months prior to their marriage.
“During the wedding ceremony, I kept looking at her, thinking how beautiful she was, that we could be together at last,” Frank said. “Later in our hotel I was so aroused I could hardly keep my pants on. But we undressed each other slowly, taking all the time we needed to fully enjoy the moment. Our sex that night was the best I’ve ever had. Why? I’d have to say it was the celebration, our deep feelings for each other — and being apart for months didn’t hurt either.”
As painful as the “obstacle” element of Morin’s erotic equation can be, it’s arguably healthy. In her book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel explains that partners in long-term relationships have a tendency to smother each other and/or kill the mystery that desire needs to thrive. A little distance really can make the heart grow fonder.
The next cornerstone is most present within cultures that limit expectations around sex. Morin calls this theme the “naughtiness factor.”
“The erotic equation predicts that those who grow up in sexually restrictive environments are almost certain to discover the erotic potential of breaking the rules,” Morin writes in The Erotic Mind. “If you can recall any titillating childhood adventures — such as playing ‘show me’ or ‘doctor’ or being fascinated by pictures of semi-clothed people in catalogs or National Geographic, secretly looking up sexy words in the dictionary, or discovering parts of your body that weren’t supposed to be pleasurable — you probably had two contradicting reactions. At times feeling naughty, dirty, guilty or afraid of punishment may have restrained you from further experimentation. On other occasions these feelings might just as well have added an extra charge to your activities and made you want to repeat them.”
Beyond childhood and adolescence, the “naughtiness factor” plays into fantasies about having an affair with a married coworker, getting it on while your parents are in the next room or having sex in a public place.
It may also explain the paradox of people in conservative states consistently watching more same-sex porn than those in more LGBTQ-friendly regions.
Searching for power
Discussing fantasies on reddit, user My_Starling expressed a desire to “fuck a Jason on Friday the 13th and see if he figures it out.”
From horror movies to politics to the dating scene, sex and power can entangle themselves in enticing ways.
“When actual or fantasized power dynamics intersect with experiences of arousal, as they often do beginning early in our lives, the erotic equation predicts that our responses might well be intensified,” Morin observes. This search for power is where fantasies about submission and domination come into play.
One woman featured in The Erotic Mind describes a fantasy she first had when she was 12, involving passion and surrender: “I am kidnapped by a dark, handsome man. He puts me on a boat and sails us to an island in the tropics. He builds a small bamboo hut and lays out a blanket where he undresses me and then himself. He ties my hands together and gives me oral sex and drives me utterly insane. Afterward we hold each other in the cool breeze.”
Of course, the desire to dominate or submit is not determined by gender. William Moulton Marston tapped into fantasies of power-shifting and bondage in the original Wonder Woman comics, which Marston acknowledged were expressly erotic. “Give [male readers] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to,” Marston wrote in the 1940s, “and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves!”
Ambivalence is not usually an aphrodisiac, but Morin’s final cornerstone suggests that mixed feelings can be a powerful turn-on — that the combination of hatred and attraction, resistance and submission, is fodder for fantasy.
It’s perhaps what makes the fight-scene-turned-sex-scene between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith so iconic, and why “hate fucking” with an ex or rival is a relatively common fantasy.
Morin interviews a woman named Lydia who was reticent about trying anal sex with her boyfriend, but goes for it anyway, starting slowly and choosing the positioning for herself. She found she loved it, and her initial reluctance somehow added to that enjoyment.
Because it’s strange to admit negative feelings can be arousing, many people don’t acknowledge ambivalence is playing into their fantasies. Another of Morin’s subjects, a gay man named George, was unusually self-aware about his contradictory attractions.
“Even as a kid I admired super masculine men, the ones who never had to worry about being called a sissy,” George said. “I remember imagining that one of them — the rougher and tougher the better — would fuck me with love and respect. I knew it would never happen, but I guess that’s what fantasies are for.”
Why dwell on fantasies if they’re just that — fantastical? For one, they allow you to stretch your imagination, which didn’t, in fact, die with your childhood. They can also help you pinpoint a “peak experience.” Psychologist Abraham Maslow describes peak experiences as “moments of ecstasy in which we are fully present in the moment, unselfconsciously expressing our truest selves with ease and grace and grateful to be alive.”
Our fantasies, past and present, reveal something about ourselves. And one need not self-psychoanalyze to gain a few insights: My past fantasies about the Goblin King and current fascination with Timothée Chalamet point to an appreciation for confident androgynous men, for example. If we’re willing to indulge some of our fantasies rather than stuff them down, we may get one step closer to having a peak experience.
So I encourage you to identify some of your first tingly thoughts, as well as the people and scenarios you find most hot to this day. Maybe start a fantasy journal. See which of the four cornerstones show up most consistently, and use this information to seek out more deeply satisfying experiences.
Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 271.